A diary of Sopwith Aviation activities through 1913
The story so far
1910 - Tommy Sopwith teaches himself to fly
February 1912 - The Sopwith School of Flying is established at Brooklands
July 1912 - The small team design and built their first aircraft, the Sopwith Hybrid
November 1912 - The newly formed Sopwith Aviation Company sells the Hybrid to the Admiralty
December 1912 - Sopwith Aviation buy the roller skating rink near Kingston station as their factory
February 1913 – Sopwith display two new designs at the Olympia Aero Show, a “Bat Boat” flying boat and a Type D 3-Seater. The Admiralty buys the Type D and orders a Bat Boat.
Sopwith aircraft at the 1913 Olympia Aero show
6th May 1913 - A Sopwith Type D “3-Seater” is delivered by road from the roller skating rink factory in Kingston to their flying sheds at Brooklands and flown for the first time by mechanic/co-designer/test pilot Harry Hawker. This is the fourth aircraft designed and built by the small Sopwith team.
9th May 1913 - Harry Hawker flies the aircraft to Farnborough and demonstrates its performance to the War Office. It flies at any speed from 35 to 75 mph and climbs to 1,000 feet in just over 2minutes with a passenger and 4 hours fuel on board.
Whit Saturday 10th May 1913 - Harry Hawker flies the aircraft to the Fifth London Aviation Meeting at Hendon for the altitude competition. He out-climbs the other four competitors and, after 15 minutes, disappears into the cloud at 7,400 feet to be declared the winner.
Bank Holiday Monday 12th May 1913 - At Brooklands, Harry Hawker and the Sopwith “3-Seater” win the Handicap race in strong winds.
Harry Hawker in the Sopwith Type D “3-Seater” May 1913
25th May 1913 The Sopwith “Bat Boat” amphibian flies for the first time at Brooklands. They plan to use it to win a £500 prize for the first practical amphibious aircraft.
This is the original Sopwith “Bat Boat”, test flown off the water at Cowes in March and badly damaged when overturned by an overnight storm. It has been completely rebuilt and much modified. It has no foreplane, ailerons in place of wing warping, an extended tail structure, a British 100hp Green engine and is an amphibian with retractable wheels.
Meanwhile, the Sopwith manufacturing team in Kingston are expanding fast and are extremely busy in their roller skating rink factory. They are building a “Bat Boat” for the Admiralty and two more “Three-seater” landplanes, whilst rushing out an order for three “100hp Anzani floatplanes”.
Seen here under construction, the first of these “Anzani Floatplanes” is to be delivered to the Admiralty just 7 weeks from receiving the order. They are the first of many Sopwith naval aircraft to be mounted on twin floats.
27th May 1913 The Admiralty are obviously impressed by the keen young Sopwith team because a £2,650 order arrives for a large “Special Gun Carrying Hydro-Biplane”. This pusher floatplane will be a radical departure from previous Sopwith designs.
The Sopwith Aviation Company’s decision to built three 80hp Sopwith “3-Seater” tractor biplane for their own use is proving to be a wise move. (The original one having been snapped up by the Admiralty)
Pilot/Co-designer Harry Hawker is gaining confidence in the reliability and performance and is showing-off the “3-Seater” at every opportunity.
On Saturday 15th June 1913 he makes what may be one of the earliest practical air-taxi flights. He flies two passengers from Brooklands to the Isle of Wight and back in flight times of just 55 minutes and 50 minutes.
The next day, Sunday 16th June 1913, he breaks two British height records, taking two passengers to 10,600ft and a single passenger up to 12,900ft. Aeroplane editor C.G.Grey thinks this is the highest achievable without a larger engine and the use of “oxygen tubes”. (Note: Within two years Harry will be taking the 80hp Sopwith “Sigrist Bus” up to a record 18,393ft)
Harry Hawker continues to push the performance envelope of the Type D “3-Seater” and on 27th July 1913 will break a World Height Record by taking three passengers up to 8,400ft. 4 people in a “3-Seater”.
These achievements do not go un-noticed. There are demands for the Government to do more to support Britain’s innovative new aircraft manufacturers.
On 8th August 1913 Sopwith Aviation will receive a £10,125 order from the War Office for nine Type Ds as 2-seaters with ailerons in place of wingwarping. This is the fledgling Company’s biggest order so far, worth around £1m at 2013 values.
The decision to set up their factory in the Roller Skating Rink in Canbury Park Road is vindicated. They can draw skilled workers from Kingston’s established boatbuilding and coach building businesses and many will be needed if their first aircraft for the Army is to be delivered in the contracted 8 weeks and seven delivered before the end of the year.
By 8th September 1913 Sopwith will also have sold two of their three “stock” Type D “3-Seaters” to the Admiralty.
Tommy Sopwith, Fred Sigrist, Harry Hawker, Draughtsman Reg Ashworth, Foremen Jack Pollard and Harry Kauper and the rest of the small team at Kingston and Brooklands will no doubt be delighted, and perhaps slightly surprised, that they sell as many as 12 of their very first landplane design.
On 22rd June 1913 the Sopwith Aviation Company’s supply their first floatplane to the Admiralty only 10 weeks after it was ordered. The Sopwith “Anzani” went to the Calshot Naval Air Station to join the Navy’s Sopwith Bat Boat which had recently arrived from Kingston via Luke’s Boatyard on the Hamble where it was assembled.
Sopwith’s original Bat Boat now fitted with retractable wheels is also to be seen around the Solent, being test flown by Harry Hawker from Sam Saunders’ Folly Sheds on the Medina river near East Cowes.
Similar in size and construction to the Type D “3-Seater” landplane, the “Anzani” floatplane has extended wings and the Italian Anzani 100hp ten cylinder radial in place of the 80hp French designed Gnome rotary engine.
By 7th August 1913 Sopwith’s small team will have delivered the second “Anzani” machine to Cromarty, and No.60 (below) to the naval establishment at Great Yarmouth. Sopwith charge £4,795 for the three although it will be early December before they get paid for this third one. (2013 equivalent around £400,000)
It can be cold and wet work in the spray launching seaplanes from the beach
With a growing order book, Sidney Burgoine is appointed Assistant Works Manager to support Fred Sigrist. He has boat building experience from working in his brother’s boatyard at nearby Hampton Wick.
18 year old Frank Spriggs is now in charge of the Sopwith General Office in Kingston, he will become Chairman of the Hawker Aircraft Co. and Managing Director of the Hawker Siddeley Group with 75,000 employees.
On 8th July 1913 Harry Hawker flies the Sopwith Bat Boat between land and water six times in an afternoon to claim the £500 Mortimer Singer prize for the first practical amphibious aircraft.
There have been many set-backs including a broken wheel and a near disaster taking-off in long grass downhill over a cliff edge from a field above the Royal Yacht Squadron at Cowes.
They eventually make the required series of 5 mile flights between a field near Lee-on-Solent and a buoy off the Isle of Wight within the allowed 5 hours. Close friend and fellow Australian Harry Kauper is not just there for the ride. When the undercarriage refuses to lower itself, his well aimed boot does the trick.
Harry Hawker looks quite proud of the achievement.
This is another high profile demonstration of the capability of the Sopwith Aviation team and Harry Hawker’s flying skills. The prize money also gives a welcome boost to the cash flow as the small company expands to cope with the demand for its aircraft. (£500 is worth over £40,000 at 2013 values).
On Sunday 28th July 1913 Harry Hawker is demonstrating the Sopwith Type D “Three Seater” again. He will fly seven days a week if the weather is suitable and sometimes when it is not. The Brooklands racecourse has become a popular venue on Sundays for motoring and aviation enthusiasts.
We have previously noted that the day before, 27th July 1913, Harry Hawker has flown three passengers to a world height record 8,400 feet in this same aircraft. The Sopwith team decide to take a whole page in Aeroplane magazine to advertise their extraordinary achievements.
Tommy Sopwith, only 25 years old and often accompanied by his pet bear Oonie, is now a well known and highly respected pioneer aviator, test pilot and aircraft manufacturer. He has recently been elected to the illustrious committee of the Royal Aero Club who are organising the 1,540 mile “Circuit of Britain” challenge for the Daily Mail.
The Sopwith Aviation team decide to build a contender at their own expense alongside the Admiralty order for three Sopwith “Anzani” floatplanes. They must be fairly confident that they can win the £5,000 prize to recover their costs and add to their growing reputation. The handsome machine is similar in design to the “Anzani” floatplanes but with a 100hp Green engine to meet the all-British competition rules.
There are initially four entries in the competition. Tragically on 7th August the great early pioneer of aviation in Britain “Colonel” Sam Cody and his passenger are killed when his “hydro-aeroplane” breaks up in the air near Farnborough whilst being flown as a landplane.
The Radley-England Waterplane has a good pedigree and is powered by a 150hp Sunbeam engine. Strangely it has the one crew member sitting in each of the two clinker-built floats. The Short S.68 floatplane entered by Mr Frank McClean uses the 100hp Green engine but has yet to appear.
On the 8th August 1913 the Sopwith “Circuit” floatplane is delivered from the works to Cowes for testing. The editor of the Aeroplane states that “like all the Sopwith machines the new biplane is beautifully made and gives one great confidence in her construction”.
Harry Hawker’s companion on this daring adventure will be his close friend and fellow mechanic Harry Kauper who came from Australia with him two years ago. We shall soon know if C.G. Grey’s confidence in them and their machine is well founded. The start date for the competition is little over a week away, 16th August.
From dawn on Saturday 16th August 1913 crowds line the banks of the Solent at Netley for the 6am start of the much promoted Daily Mail “Circuit of Britain” air race. They will be aware that “Colonel” Sam Cody has died testing his machine but some will not know that two other competitors have withdrawn at the last minute citing engine problems.
This only leaves Harry Hawker and Harry Kauper in the Sopwith “Circuit” floatplane who are still setting their compass and waiting for the correct tide at the Calshot naval seaplane base at the mouth of the Solent. The Sopwith team have meticulously planned this attempt at an extraordinary and historic challenge, to fly 1,540 mile around the coast of Britain within 72 hours only landing in the sea, harbours or salt water estuaries.
Eventually the Sopwith machine appears and alights on the water close to the Royal Aero Club race headquarters on the motor-yacht Enchantress which is crowded with aeronautical and miltary dignitaries and the press. After complex manoeuvres the floatplane is judged to be behind the start line and is flagged away at 11.47am. The take-off “with the stream and against the wind” is remarkably short and they disappear majestically south into the haze.
Harry decides not to strain his 100hp Green engine in these early stages. At “half throttle” 144 miles and 144 minutes later they reach the Ramsgate check-point. After the compulsory official scrutineering, they leave at 3.02 pm and manage the 96 miles to Great Yarmouth by 4.38pm, another remarkably consistent mile-a-minute stage.
All is not right however. Harry Hawker collapses and complains of severe pains in his head and eyes. It is thought to be sunstroke or carbon monoxide fumes from the engine or both. Tommy Sopwith’s ever supportive sister May finds Harry a nursing home for the night but he is unable to get up the next morning. Harry Kauper, who sat up front, is unaffected.
Tommy Sopwith promptly engages the experienced cross-channel pilot Sydney Pickles to take over the challenge. Sydney arrives at Yarmouth on the Sunday to start out on Monday morning. In choppy seas the tail of the machine becomes waterlogged and the attempt is abandoned before they even leave the water. The aircraft is returned home by train for rapid repairs and for the engine exhaust pipe to be extended further aft.
On Saturday large crowds welcome the arrival. On Monday the tailless machine is hoisted from the water.
In the hope that Harry Hawker will have recovered and Frank McClean will have his Short S.68 ready to make a race of it, the Royal Aero Club declares that the “Circuit of Britain” challenge will re-start on 23rd or 25th August.
On 23rd August 1913 the photographs below of the Royal Navy’s first Sopwith Bat Boat No.38 are taken from the West Pier at Brighton. Just 11 weeks in service and carrying no markings, it has been moored and Lt Spencer Grey is disembarking with a passenger with a swell running (below left). A storm brakes that night and the machine sinks. It is extensively damaged while being salvaged and will have to go back to Sopwith Aviation to be rebuilt.
On Monday 25th August 1913 it is again only the Sopwith team who have sufficient confidence in their floatplane and its engine to attempt the £5.000 1,540 mile Daily Mail “Circuit of Britain” challenge. They must call at official checkpoints around the coast and only alight in the sea, harbours or salt water estuaries.
This time their carefully planned exploit starts early. Harry Hawker and Harry Kauper take-off from the Solent at Netley at 5.30am in the repaired Sopwith “Circuit” floatplane and after flying 144 miles arrive at Ramsgate at 8.08am. Exactly an hour later they leave on the 96 mile flight to Yarmouth, arriving at 10.30am. At 11.44am they are away again arriving at Scarborough after another 150 miles by 2.45pm to be met by large crowds.
At Scarborough, they have a meal and a rest on the yacht Naidia. Hawker seems quite well, this time it is Harry Kauper who has a headache. After a delay getting the aircraft to head into wind they leave at 4.33pm but have to make an unscheduled stop at Seaham when heat from a burst exhaust pipe boils away the engine cooling water. They refill the radiator with sea water and from 6.40pm to 7.40pm complete the 105 miles to Beadnell.
They have flown 495 miles and established a world record for the longest over-sea flight in one day.
On Tuesday 26th they are away from Beadnell at 8.05am and complete three more legs, alighting at Montrose, Aberdeen and Cromarty before the 94 miles over Inverness and down the Caledonian Canal to Oban on the west coast of Scotland. When they arrive at 6.55pm, Harry Hawker reports that the last leg was the most difficult battling the gusting winds between the mountains. They complete 341 miles that day
On Wednesday 27th they start out from Oban at 5.42am but are unable to lift off the water and have to repair a waterlogged float. Eventually leaving at 6.48am, they alight at Kiells to check the engine before making the 81 miles across the Irish Sea to Larne. They leave Larne at 11am. By 1.15pm they are really concerned about the engine and suspect a broken valve spring. Spotting a sheltered bay at Loughshinney near Skerries, Harry Hawker spirals down to alight near the beach when his boot slips off the end of the rudder bar and they plunge sideways into the sea. The aircraft is badly damaged and Harry Kauper has a broken arm. They are unaware that just 12 miles away in Dublin engine designer Gustavus Green is waiting with a new set of valve springs
Whilst the Sopwith team are focussed on recovering the valuable engine and airframe, there is much acclaim for their amazing achievement and Harry Hawker is fast becoming a public celebrity. Having flown 1,043 miles, the Daily Mail awards them a £1000 consolation prize. Without that slip they might just have completed the 1,540 mile “Circuit” within the time limit.
Tommy Sopwith was fond of telling people he had stopped flying before the Air Speed Indicator was invented. It is true that by late 1913 his name rarely appears in the weekly published lists of pilots flying at Brooklands or elsewhere. He now has a very competent test and demonstration pilot in Harry Hawker, the rapidly expanding Sopwith Aviation Company to direct and manage, and a continuing role in the design of their aircraft.
However, it should not be assumed that 25 year old Tommy Sopwith’s passion for speed and adventure has diminished. In September 1913, he cannot resist a second opportunity to test his subtle piloting skills and rapid reactions to master wind, wave and tide in open competition against the best in the world of brute power speedboat racing for the British International Harmsworth Trophy, presented since 1903 by Sir Alfred Harmsworth, by now Lord Northcliffe, proprietor of the Daily Mail. Daily Mail sponsored competition yet again.
By 1912 the Americans had won the last 4 races and average speeds had leapt to 40mph with the introduction of planing hulls. After a string of failed challenges, wealthy Canadian stockbroker, Sir Edward Mackay Edgar commissioned Sam Saunders of Cowes to build `Maple Leaf IV' as a British entry for the 1912 Harmsworth Trophy races in Huntington Bay, New York State. Saunders’ monster 40 foot long, innovative five-step hydroplaning Consulta hull carried two American engines drastically modified by Austin Motors in Birmingham to give 400hp each. Sam Saunders recommended Tommy Sopwith to Sir Edward as a crack British helmsman.
Tommy drove Maple Leaf VI to win the second race and then the third by over a minute to take the Trophy for Britain at an average 43.18 mph over the 30 mile course. We can now understand S. E. Saunders being chosen a few months later to design and build the hull for the Sopwith Bat Boat, Britain’s first successful flying boat.
Britain’s defence of the Harmsworth Trophy in 1913 is held in Osborne Bay off the Isle of Wight with American and French challengers.
In the first race Tommy Sopwith again driving `Maple Leaf IV' comes in second despite a late start, the following day they win at an average speed of 56.65mph and on 12th September 1913 win the third deciding race to retain the Trophy at an astonishing overall average speed of 56.4mph.
Sir Thomas Sopwith was to continue his love of seafaring and nautical competition for the rest of his long life on two occasions entering large yachts in the prestigious Americas Cup races.
Harry Hawker’s achievement in the Circuit of Britain challenge has helped bring the rapid development of aviation in Britain to the attention of the nation. On 21st September 1913 the public enclosures at Hendon Airfield are crammed to overflowing with people eager to see Britain’s most famous aviators battle it out in the 1913 Aerial Derby. The 95 mile circuit of London back to Hendon has turning checkpoints at Kempton Park, Epsom Racecourse, West Thurrock, Epping and Hertford. The press report that large crowds are gathered at every vantage point around the course.
Crowds at Hendon, 21st September 1913 & the Hendon race pylon with the Sopwith 3-seater
Six of the nine entries are French types including two Bleriot and three Morane-Saulnier monoplanes.
In the three British machines, Harry Hawker is up against two professional pilot chums and rivals from Brooklands. Sopwith School of Flying ex-instructor Fred Raynham is in the latest Avro biplane which has first flown just 3 days before the race. Both have 80hp Gnome rotary engines like most other competitors but Frank Barnwell flies a 120hp Austro-Daimler powered large Martinsyde monoplane.
Hawker's Sopwith 3-seater Raynham's frail looking prototype Avro 504 Barnwell with the Martinsyde
Aeroplane reports that “the most spectacular start is by Mr Hawker who turns sharp and close to the pylon while still rising, a sight which - together with the pilot’s fame - draws him a hearty cheer as he passes over the public enclosure.” In contrast Gustav Hamel has shortened the wings of his Morane-Saulnier monoplane so much that he starts “far to the rear of other machines and must be speeding across the ground at fully 60mph before he shows any tendency to lift, even then his rising was so gradual that he cannot attempt a turn for several hundred yards”. Unsurprisingly Hamel’s out-and-out racing machine wins with an average speed of 75mph. Barnwell, with 50% more power than the others, averages 72mph to come second.
The duel between the Sopwith and Avro machines is “one of the keenest fights in the history of aviation”. Hawker picks up just 30 seconds on Raynham over the 95 miles to take third place at 67mph. The surprise is that they outpace the standard monoplanes. The conclusion that both machines are “definitely amongst the best in the world” heralds the ascendancy of British biplane design over monoplanes for many years to come.
Sopwith’s 3-seater is their best selling type in 1913 but Harry Hawker is already hatching plans for an extremely compact 80hp two-seater biplane which will out-perform all others.
Harry Hawker’s “glorious failure” in the Circuit of Britain challenge may have helped bring the rapid development of aviation in Britain to the attention of the nation but the wrecked aircraft and damaged engine represent a big investment by Sopwith which has to be recouped.
On 4th October 1913 the aircraft re-appears at Brooklands as an all-British landplane for Harry Hawker to use in the two 1913 Michelin Trophy challenges. These are for greatest distance and speed around prescribed courses on specific days with prizes of £500 & £800 (Over £100,000 at 2013 values).
Aeroplane reports that this Sopwith machine is “not as fast as the standard 80hp machine but the glide is a quite astonishing affair if anything flatter and slower than a Maurice Farman”.
We should remember that the previous October, a few weeks after gaining his Royal Aero Club Aviators Certificate, Harry had flown the Sopwith Burgess Wright machine for 8 hours 23 minute round and around over Brooklands to win £500 and the 1912 Michelin Trophy for endurance. He landed in the dark. To qualify as British the machine was completely re-built and much modified by Fred Sigrist and used a 40hp ABC engine.
The modified Sopwith Wright biplane and the 1912 Michelin Trophy in the clubhouse at Brooklands
With the delays rebuilding the 1913 Sopwith “Circuit” machine since crashing into the sea, there are few qualifying days left for the 1913 Michelin Trophy attempts.
On 8th October 1913 Harry sets out from Brooklands despite a strong southerly wind. Confident of his machine without the weight of the floats, he takes off slightly cross wind over the trees towards Cobham and at 200 feet turns downwind to head for Hendon. Loosing height in the turn he meets a “strong down-current over the trees which border the Weybridge-Byfleet Road and falls almost vertically into the field by the side of the river next to houses by the Italia Works”. Twisting around as it falls the machine hits the ground one wing first and settles upright with the hardly damaged engine pushed back into the passenger seat.
By braced his legs against the fuel tank, Harry “saves his legs and probably his life” as the tank caves in on impact. But for a grazed forehead he appears all right, however “the shock up his legs strained a back muscle rather badly”. Harry immediately confirms that the engine ran full throttle during his attempt to regain control and simply blames himself for over-confidence. This is the second crash in the same machine in 5 weeks and is most probably the start of his serious back problems. There is clearly a lot still to be learned about flying safely.
The accident fuels the lively debate in the technical press over the pros and cons of introducing seat belt for pilots.
Sopwith 1913 “Circuit” landplane with 100hp Green engine
On 14th October 1913 Sopwith Aviation receives its first ever export order.
The order is for three floatplanes, the first aircraft in the Greek Navy. The Greek Government have been helped in this choice by their British Admiralty advisor Rear Admiral Mark Kerr who in turn took advice from Captain Murray Sueter of the Admiralty’s Air Department. Sueter wrote “We call on the services of Mr Tom Sopwith, the stand-by of the Royal Naval Air Service, in many of the difficult matters that come up for solution”.
Sopwith’s brief is for a spotting aircraft, initially dual control as a trainer, capable of being fitted for bomb or gun carrying. With Sopwith Bat Boats and Sopwith Anzani floatplanes performimg well in the RNAS, it is a surprise that the order is for a completely new type. The design configuration is a 100hp Anzani engined floatplane but a pusher with a Bat Boat like open tail structure. The crew sit in tandem in a nascelle at the front.
A Sopwith "Greek" pusher floatplane in March 1914.
Within a few days Sopwith will receive an order for two identical machines from the Royal Navy. This configuration obviously appeals to the military with its unimpeded views for training and observation not to mention the added potential to mount a gun in the nose.
The Sopwith may be unique as a floatplane but there are prototype similar two-seat pusher landplanes already flying including Geoffrey de Havilland’s FE.1 for the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough and the Vickers EFB1 & EFB2 at Brooklands. (FE stands for Farman Experimental and EFB for Experimental Fighting Biplane. The generic term “Gunbus” will later be applied to all three of these families of pushers)
In the handwritten Sopwith order book alongside the £6,205 Greek Navy order are the words “less 1% to the fund for widows”. This is for the Royal Aero Club fund started for the widow of aviation pioneer “Colonel” Sam Cody killed in the flying accident at Farnborough whilst preparing to challenge Harry Hawker in the 1913 Circuit of Britain race.
Over 12 feet high with 50 foot wingspan, these are large machines to build more than one at a time in the Skating Rink at Kingston.
Scheduling deliveries for 2 months from order and fortnightly thereafter seems optimistic especially as there are 7 of the 9 Type D’s to complete for the War Office before Christmas.
A Sopwith pusher floatplane on build in the Skating Rink
30th October 1913 is another red letter day for the Sopwith works team who complete their first aircraft for the War Office and deliver it to Brooklands for flight testing.
All previous sales have been to the Admiralty and it is just 12 weeks since they took this War Office order for nine Type D(2) at £1125 each. The 2nd October customer delivery promise for this first aircraft was clearly rather optimistic considering that it is the first Sopwith Type D with ailerons rather than wing warping.
Production of the other eight Type D(2)s for the Royal Flying Corps is well advanced in the Skating Rink factory. They are on plan to complete one a week in a race to deliver all nine by 22 January 1914 as originally promised.
Type D with ailerons at Brooklands fresh from the Kingston factory. Sopwith’s three sheds are on the right hand end of this row of fourteen backing the banking in the South West corner of the motor racing circuit
It is not as though the factory team has nothing else to do, there are 6 naval floatplanes on order.
Significantly, on 25th October the following handwritten entry has also been added to Sopwith’s Order Book:-
Customer: Hawker Quantity: One Article: 80hp Gnome Tractor Two Seater Type St.B. Works Order No.36
In the last three weeks they have also rebuilt the crashed ex “Circuit of Britain” 100hp Green engined machine for the second time. On 31st October 1913 Harry Hawker uses it to attempt a Michelin Prize cross-country distance record over the Brooklands-Hendon course. After 3 hours and 220 miles he is so unwell he has to abandon the attempt. He now has only one week left to repeat his 1912 Michelin Trophy success.
In an early example of fully testing a machine before entering service, Sopwith’s first War Office aeroplane is to be examined and the performance measured by Mervyn O’Gorman’s handpicked team of engineers and aviation specialists at the recently renamed Royal Aircraft Factory, Farnborough.
They will go on to measure the Type D’s ultimate strength by supporting the inverted aircraft fuselage and progressively distributing weighed quantities of sand over the wings until something breaks. The result is seen here in the Airship Shed.
After recent fatal structural failures, Farnborough’s T.W.K. Clarke stuns the aeronautical world by calculating that “when levelling from a very long dive” wing loading might exceed 11 times the normal.
Before Farnborough, T.W.K.Clarke had an aircraft model shop at 14, Union Street, Kingston (later in High Street, Hampton Wick) and had taken over Alfred Burgoine’s Crown Works, 22a, High Street, Kingston from at least September 1911 to February 1913 to build gliders and aircraft.
On 6th November 1913 the Sopwith team complete a substantial rebuild of their first ever own-designed aeroplane and deliver it back to the Admiralty at Eastchurch in Kent a year after it first made the same journey.
In mid 1912 this had been a very significant aircraft in T.O.M. Sopwith’s decision to become an aircraft manufacturer. His engineer Fred Sigrist set about building this brand new “tractor” biplane by constructing a set of wings similar to those on their Burgess-Wright pusher biplane and devising a wood frame fuselage which sat between the wings. It carried the 70hp Gnome rotary engine from their Bleriot monoplane with rudder and elevators at the rear, an altogether neater arrangement than the Wright pusher. Because of its mixed heritage the machine became known as the Sopwith “Hybrid”.
Sopwith “Hybrid” three-seat fuselage in the Sopwith sheds at Brooklands in 1912 and in its initial form
When Tommy Sopwith first flew the “Hybrid” on 4th July 1912 it handled well, climbed to 1,000 feet in three minutes but was rather slow. Eight days later a less experienced pilot crashed it into the Sewage Farm at Brooklands, a fairly common occurrence in those days, messy but rarely fatal.
Rebuilt with two wheel undercarriage and fully covered fuselage, it came to the attention of the Admiralty who offered to buy it for £900. Sopwith received the order on 21st October 1912. The aircraft was delivered to the new naval aviation station at Eastchurch by Harry Hawker and Harry Kauper on 23rd November 1912. They had set out on the 22nd but had to land and continue the following morning after being lost in fog.
Thus on 21st October 1912 the newly created Sopwith Aviation Company became an Admiralty approved aircraft manufacturer. The £900 from their first sale was used to establish a factory in the Roller Skating Rink in Kingston-upon-Thames in late December 1912.
21st October 1912 was also the day that ex-Kingston schoolmaster R. J. Ashfield joined Sopwith Aviation as their first draughtsman. £3 a week was much more than his teacher’s pay. In these early days the aircraft were devised jointly by Sopwith, Sigrist and Hawker with Reg Ashfield often drawing them as they were built.
From November 1912, the slow but dependable Sopwith Hybrid had a quiet life at Eastchurch. Tommy Sopwith famously thought it was mostly used to collect oysters from Whitstable for the naval mess. When Eastchurch received the first Sopwith “Type D” this was clearly a much improved development of their old “Hybrid”.
In May 1913 the Admiralty had placed a £685 order with Sopwith to recover the “Hybrid” from Eastchurch and rebuild it “on the lines of our latest type tractor biplane”. The contracted delivery date was August but the rebuild took until November with the factory busy with new naval floatplanes and Type D2s for the Royal Flying Corps. The rebuilt “Hybrid” retains its original military serial number 27, reflecting its early role in Britain’s military aviation history.
On 17th November 1913 the Sopwith Aviation Company records two new orders with the very considerable total value of £5,482. (Around £500,000 at 2013 values). Both orders are for a “Seaplane, Bat Boat type, with propelling propeller and 200hp engine”. One is from the Admiralty and one from a mysterious Captain Von Pustau.
The Admiralty order specifies a 14 cylinder water-cooled Salmson Canton-Unné engine. The Admiralty will pay “95% of price of £960 engine on delivery to builder’s works”. Delivery is to be “on or before 20th April 1914”.
The other order comes with a down-payment of £750. Sales value is noted as “Less 10% commission to Von Pustau” and delivery is promised “In Germany not later than end of March 1914”. There are no restrictions on foreign sales at this time and it is probably not a secret that this machine will be going to the German Navy.
The delivery dates offer the opportunity for one of these aeroplanes to be exhibited on the Sopwith Stand at the Aero and Marine Olympia Exhibition from March 16th to 25th 1914.
Whilst similar in general configuration to the original Bat Boats, these Bat Boat IIs are a completely new design with twice the power, nearly twice the empty weight and a 55 ft. wingspan compared with 41 ft. They will be equipped with compressed-air self-starters and a motorcycle engine in the nose driving a generator to power wireless telegraphy equipment. The latest hydroplane innovations are adopted in the hull.
A year ago the military were keen to buy almost anything that could routinely get a person or two into the air. Now Sopwith are offering them a fully equipped, powerful and potentially really useful naval flying machine.
The Admiralty’s original Sopwith Bat Boat No.38 has been operating from Calshot since early August with its 90hp Austro-Daimler engine. Sopwith have now also sold their Mortimer Singer Prize Bat Boat to the Admiralty for £1,282.10.0d. It is being refurbished as No.118 and fitted with an Austro-Daimler engine in place of the Green. If all goes to plan there will be two Bat Boats at Calshot by December and three by late April.
On 19th November 1913 Harry Hawker makes a final attempt to win the 1913 Michelin Cup distance competition in the 100hp Green powered Sopwith “Circuit” landplane but “Weather conditions are so rough he is unable to finish his effort”. The £500 prize money goes to Mr Reginald Carr in the similar engined open five-seat Graham-White “Char-à-Bancs”. A week ago he flew it 315 miles non-stop with a passenger - fifteen and a half laps of the Hendon-Brooklands course. Harry Hawker can now concentrate on his compact 80hp “Stunt Bus” which is nearing completion in the Skating Rink at Kingston. It promises to be a very much livelier mount than any previous machine.
During 1913 Geoffrey de Havilland has been experimenting with small fast single-seat “scouts” at the Royal Aircraft Factory. Harry Hawker decides to design his own small fast biplane but a “demonstrator” with 2-seats. The smaller the better as he plans to take it home to Australia by boat. Harry is assisted with the design by Fred Sigrist and benefits, no doubt, from contributions by all the other enthusiasts in the small Sopwith team.
Thursday 27th November 1913 is a very significant date for the Sopwith Aviation Company.
Harry Hawker’s 80hp Gnome rotary-engined Sopwith St.B. (Stock Biplane? Stunt Bus?) is completed in the Roller Skating Rink factory in Kingston just 4 weeks from issuing the works order. The St.B. is taken by road to Sopwith’s sheds at Brooklands, assembled within 90 minutes and flown for the first time that same morning. Harry is delighted with the handling and performance of his neat little 25ft wingspan single-bay biplane.
The Sopwith team waste no time in arranging to fly the aeroplane to Farnborough on Saturday morning 29th November. Official performance tests with a passenger and 2½ hours fuel on board record a remarkable 92 mph and 1,200ft per minute climb rate. The minimum speed is just 36.9 mph. The tiny Sopwith machine out-performs anything tested by the Royal Aircraft Factory including their latest S.E.2 Scout with the same engine.
Tommy Sopwith and Harry Hawker at Hendon 29th November. Note the adopted nickname “Tabloid”
That same Saturday 29th November 1913 15,000 people have poured through the turnstiles at Hendon for an Air Display. The event opens with simultaneous flying by 7 pilots in two British and five French machines with typical top speeds of 50 to 70mph. The aviation world and assembled crowds are, however, in for a surprise.
Contemporary Flight magazine reports can hardly conceal the excitement of seeing a new British machine steal the show. “A machine was seen approaching from the west at a great rate. This turns out to be the new 80hp Gnome-Sopwith biplane piloted by Harry Hawker. On entering the aerodrome he makes two complete circuits at an astounding speed estimated to be close to 90mph”. Flight goes on to hail the Farnborough test results as “world record feats” and describes “the baby Sopwith” as an “exhibition machine capable of performing all sorts of evolutions such as steep bankings, small circles, switchbacks etc”.
Aeroplane magazine is similarly impressed concluding that “this machine will probably astonish those who have been led to believe, thanks to the British Authorities and the British Press, that we have no manufacturers worthy of consideration in this country”.
This excitement is only a part of Harry Hawker’s busy week. The closing date for the Michelin Cup No.2 Cross-Country Competition has been extended to the end of November. The Sopwith Aviation Co. needs the £800 prize to help recoup the cost of rebuilding their “Circuit” landplane. On Wednesday 26th November Harry flies 265 miles in 5 hours from Brooklands via Eastchurch in Kent, Southampton and Salisbury only to land 14 miles short of the qualifying distance at Hendon with a burst fuel pressure pipe. On Thursday 27th after testing his new baby, he sets out again but runs into fog banks between Croydon and Eastchurch and has to return home. No-one completes a Michelin Cup qualifying non-stop 279 mile flight in an all-British machine in 1913.
On 4th December 1913 Aeroplane magazine use their whole front page to celebrate Sopwith’s tiny new biplane, now dubbed the “Tabloid”. On 6th December the Sopwith Aviation Company publishes their first advertisement extolling its efficiency.
The Sopwith 80hp biplane is significant enough for Flight magazine to allocate four whole pages. Their fine diagrams show details like the folded steel brackets and clips which locate the wooden members and provide the lugs for the taut diagonal bracing wires which pull the whole structure together.
Aeroplane magazine makes space to comment on the machine’s now widely adopted “Tabloid” nickname:-
“In response to earnest enquirers the small speedy Sopwith biplane has been nicknamed Tabloid because it contains so many good qualities in such small compass, and also because it is such a concentrated dose of medicine for certain gentlemen at the Royal Aircraft factory. One hopes that Messrs. Burroughs Wellcome & Co., ever good friends to aviators, will not consider the nickname an infringement of their trade mark.”
Burroughs Welcome have been using the “Tabloid” trademark since the 1880s for small concentrated medicinal pills and more recently for other compact products as with this “featherweight” aviator’s first aid kit
In December 1913 Tommy Sopwith is away at the Paris Aero Salon studying the competition and doing deals with his French engine suppliers. He is particularly interested in buying one of the latest 100hp Monosoupape (Single-valve) Gnome rotary engines.
In its first 12 months to 30th October 1913, his Sopwith Aviation Company had taken orders for aircraft, spares and rebuilds valued at over £45,000. (c£4.5m in 2013) Almost half of those orders arrived in the last three months of that year during which the number of new aircraft ordered rose from 12 to 26. With the business growing so rapidly the time has come to incorporate the Sopwith Aviation Company as a private limited company.
On 15th December 1913 the “Sopwith Aviation Company Limited” official Certificate of Incorporation No.132793 is approved, formalising shareholders rights and limiting Director’s liabilities.
Tommy Sopwith has personally funded most of the company’s activities so far. However his widowed mother Lydia and sister May have loaned him significant amounts to help pay the growing bills for materials and wages and to start acquiring properties in Canbury Park Road for expansion.
With Tommy away, the first Board Meeting of the limited company is held on 18th December 1913 by the other two Directors, Miss May Sopwith and General Manager Reginald O. Cary, in the presence of Company Secretary H. P. Musgrave. They approve the necessary formal arrangements recording Canbury Park Road as the Registered Office and they appoint company officers, a bank, an auditor and a solicitor. They sign and attach an imprint of the new Company Seal. Tommy, May and Reginald, the three subscribers to the Memorandum of Association, are declared as shareholders initially with one £1 share each.
Most importantly the meeting confirms an agreement to purchase the Sopwith Aviation Company from the 25 year old Tommy Sopwith. Completion of the sale is to be on 8th January 1914 and he will receive 2,000 £1 Preference Shares and 18,000 £1 Ordinary Shares in the Limited Company. The 2,000 Preference Shares will go on to Miss May and Mrs Lydia Sopwith, with 4,000 more, in recognition of their investments in the business.
That the company has grown in its first year to be valued at £20,000 (c£2m today) is a remarkable achievement for Tommy and his team. The valuation reflects confidence that the company will continue to grow rapidly.
By 31st October they had delivered £13,000 of the £45,000 orders obtained and they carry forward to the accounts of the limited company “Work-in-progress” valued at £4,000 and “Stock ‘planes” valued at £3,000.
Since then they have delivered orders worth £8,000 and taken new orders for a similar amount. The factory is busy. The team of 6 workmen taken on in Kingston in late December 1912 has grown to over 100 plus a small drawing office team.
Meanwhile Harry Hawker is going home to Australia with his prototype Sopwith Tabloid. So at Brooklands it is experienced ex-Avro, ex-Bristol test pilot Howard Pixton who is to be seen testing the new Sopwith Type D2s for the War Office and delivering them to Farnborough. On one such flight he is recorded as having to “come down en route making a very clever landing under difficult conditions in a ploughed field at Pyrford from which he experienced some difficulty in re-starting”.
23rd December 1913 is the first anniversary of the Sopwith Aviation Company move into the Roller Skating Rink in Canbury Park Road in Kingston. At Brooklands before that they had built and flown just one complete aeroplane. They had also built a mysterious tractor biplane flying boat which probably never flew but it was their Sopwith “Hybrid” which got them started. The “Hybrid” was first flown 4th July 1912 and sold to the Admiralty in November. The £900 from that sale financed the move into Kingston with its ready-made factory and pool of skilled craftsmen in boatbuilding and coach-building businesses.
Since then Sopwith Aviation have established themselves as trusted suppliers to the Admiralty and the War Office and leapt into the front rank of British aircraft companies. They have taken orders for 30 aircraft. The workshop has managed to build 18 new aircraft in its first 12 months and completely rebuild at least 4.
Manufacture of the first Sopwith “Three-seater” started at Brooklands, so the first aircraft wholly built in Kingston was the first Sopwith Bat Boat. These two original Sopwith designs were a sensation at the Olympia Show in Mid February 1913. The Admiralty ordered one of each type. They got the “Three-Seater” in February but that first Bat Boat was damaged in trials at Cowes and wrecked in a storm. A new Bat Boat was built for the Admiralty by June and delivered 2nd August. The wrecked one was rebuilt as an amphibian by May to win the Mortimer-Singer prize in July. Recently rebuilt and re-engined, it too is now ready for delivery to the Admiralty.
Back in May 1913 Sopwith completed two more “Three-Seaters” for “stock” and a third in July. Harry Hawker demonstrated their performance with amazing height records. Two of these were bought by the Admiralty and delivered in August and September. One is retained as the Company demonstrator and competition machine.
Sopwith Bat Boat and Three-Seater
Meanwhile, the Admiralty had ordered three floatplane developments of the “Three-Seater” with Anzani radial engines and these were completed in June and July. They appear surprisingly large on land.
Sopwith Anzani floatplane at Yarmouth
A similar machine to the Anzani but with a British Green engine was finished 8th August ready for the Daily Mail “Circuit of Britain” race.
On that same day the War Office ordered nine two seat Sopwith “Type D2” military versions of the “Three Seater”. By the end of 1913 seven of these have been completed.
The other new aircraft completed in 1913 by the (now) Sopwith Aviation Company Limited is the little “Tabloid” biplane already on its way to Australia with Harry Hawker.
Going into the New Year, the factory is busy with the last two of the War Office Type D2s and five pusher floatplanes of completely new design, two for the Admiralty and three for the Greek Navy. They also have an urgent Admiralty order for a clipped wing floatplane to be used to test Murray Seuter’s torpedo dropping mechanism. Since April and May they have been wrestling with Admiralty orders for two 200hp floatplanes. One has a coupled pair of engines driving a single propeller. Progress is slow, this is new territory and a big step-up in scale. However, the two recently ordered Bat Boat IIs are in design and will soon hit the workshop.
On top of all this on 24th December 1913 they accept an order for a larger version of the new “Tabloid” landplane personally specified by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. This is a feather in their cap and unsurprisingly it jumps to the front of the queue. Delivery is promised in 5 weeks on 1st February!
Sopwith’s success owes much to Fred Sigrist’s insistence on the highest quality of workmanship, their responsiveness to customer requests and delivery lead times for new aircraft typically just 8 weeks from order. Truth be told they have often missed promised delivery dates but, with notable exceptions, not by too much. Fred’s flair for manufacturing and works management provides the confidence that they can cope with so many new orders. He is personally spurred on by a generous £50 bonus for every aeroplane produced and is ably supported by Experimental Foreman Jack Pollard and Foreman Fitter Harry Kauper.
Working for Howard Wright in Battersea, Jack Pollard helped build the first aeroplanes bought by Tommy Sopwith in 1910, accompanied Tommy, May and Fred to the USA in 1911 and joined the Sopwith team early in 1912. Harry Kauper joined Fred Sigrist’s team in June 1912 a week before his friend and fellow Australian motor mechanic Harry Hawker.
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